IRIGOIEN, Joan Mari:
A Land Beyond
They've always told me I was a child of few words, but things changed completely for me when I was five years old and I was playing, running after a hen, and I stumbled and fell and hit my head against a rock; and they also tell me that as a result of the blow, I fainted and lost consciousness and was near death, but when I came out of it and left danger behind me, I began to speak with an ease I had never had before the blow, and the words and more words flowed out of me so quickly and so close together that it seemed the Holy Spirit was in my tongue. And I don't know if it was because of the blow or because God made me that way by nature, but the thing is, my memory is the same and I can remember a thousand events, even ones that happened a long time ago, with complete precision and great nuance. And so I can tell you without fear of telling a lie that I spoke as well as many older people when I was only six years old; but likewise, I must confess that even though I was like that in speech, I had not yet reached the age of a man and was as immature and childish as any child, fragile and flighty. Does this have any explanation, Lord André? If what Descartes said is true, it seems that the whole body is the seat of the soul, and the brain - or the gland in the middle of the brain, to be specific - is the most important room of that abode, from which tiny vessels
- the nerves - that make up a whole network extend out to the muscles and organs, which in and of themselves hold the light breath or humor of the animal spirit, and which become one with the thinnest elements of the blood. And I sometimes ask myself if, keeping Descartes' theories in mind and given the question of my nerves, I was brought into this world with the defect that some of my vessels were blocked somehow, for example, and if, by inference, there weren't some bad spirits there blocking them... and if therefore I was born not mute but almost mute, until, as a result of that blow, all blocks were unblocked and the spirits found their true path... Could something like that have happened to me, Lord André? Or, as I just said, was I just that way by nature and the blow had nothing to do with my evolution... and I started speaking, just like that, because it was my time to speak, that's all...?
But, if I'm to believe my family, it seems that I was born with a defect and that the blow rid me of it, or at least that's what they thought. And from then on, I commanded the same ease in learning things; I went on and on, with such luck that at age nine, I knew everything that the priest Brother Francisco knew
- he was our first tutor, Mattin's and mine - nominatives and genitives, credos and glorias.
Nevertheless, I must tell you that, although Brother Francisco was not terribly wise, he was a good man. But now I don't know if I'm on the right track because, Lord André, we have before us an intangible, and in my opinion, sacred word: wise. What does it really mean in this life to be wise, or to have wisdom? Is it one who knows a lot of arithmetic and geometry? Or one who knows rhetoric and speaks well? Can a man be wise who knows all the numbers in the world, but who would be lost if left alone in the middle of the forest, as I saw him many times in the woods where the Orinoco river flows? And who is wiser: the best speaker in the world and the servant and serf of the word, or one who simply knows when to be silent, who knows the voice of silence? And who is wiser in the final analysis: a wretched, needy farmer who follows the way of God, or a rich, nearly omnipotent nobleman who has sold his soul to the devil? And now I remember the Indians I met in the Indies: they didn't know how to read or write, but they had a radiance and joy in life, and so great was it, so full and internalized, that even though they knew nothing, it seemed they knew everything, because they knew the secrets of happiness and good fortune; and I ask you: who is wiser, those seemingly ignorant Indians, who didn't even know how to read and write and who needed next to nothing to live, or the conquerors who went there, who knew how to read and write but who were never satisfied? Nihil necesse sapiente est, said Seneca, and perhaps it's true that the wise need nothing, in which case the Indians were wiser than the conquerors, and Brother Francisco was also wiser than many other people, since he also knew how to live with next to nothing. And perhaps it's true that the wise man doesn't think himself wise, as Publilius Syrus said - Non pote non sapere qui se stultum intelligit - so Brother Francisco was wise then, since the teacher who confesses that he knows less than his students, as he did and I'll tell you about it later, could be nothing but wise. Finally, Prima docet rectum sapientia, as Juvenal said, and it can't be denied that Brother Francisco was a just and honest man, and he always chose the just and honest path, and his honesty may well have been the proof of his wisdom.
But, having said all this, now I will also tell you that Brother Francisco was not wise, at least not in the way the word is usually understood. He knew Latin - more or less, only enough to speak brokenly - and the basic rules of grammar and scholasticism, but apart from that, not much else. Despite these restrictions, however, he had the gift, an uncommon gift among men, of knowing his own capabilities and limitations and of behaving accordingly, without pretension. His parents, in fact, had been peasants, and he made no attempt to hide his origins; the beast of burden of his family was a donkey, and he didn't spend his life with his eye on Caligula's horse, wondering when his donkey would also be made a consul, to such an extent that he refused a horse when both my parents and my grandfather Nikolas wanted to give him a beautiful horse so that he could ride in the manner and in the image of important people. "No. I fell from a horse once and, as the old saying says, I'd rather have a donkey that will carry me than a horse that will throw me..."
- and Brother Francisco strengthened that argument, one that could have come from Sancho Panza, with another theological one: "the Virgin Mary's horse, furthermore, was a donkey, and I wouldn't place myself above the Virgin Mary," and coming down to earth again but with his eyes turned to the heavens, he finished: "nevertheless, as you know, Saint Isidore's image fell down in church the other day, and yes, I would approve of another Saint Isidore for you, as a reward for your good behavior, in place of ours that broke, since as it is now, even the angels wouldn't recognize him... and it will thus be difficult for them to find their way to Urbiain, to the farmers' labor of the land."
And in chess he was the same way.
Because I still haven't told you that my grandfather Nikolas was a friend of Brother Francisco's, and became a better and better friend of his, especially in his last years. And one day my grandfather taught the priest the game of chess, and from then on, they both busied themselves as often as possible before the chessboard. And sometimes I also watched them, and I remember that the priest would move his knights with their leaps, any time, one square, two squares further on, especially when he was new to the game. And my grandfather Nikolas, since he had read Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, would say:
"I didn't know your horses could fly, like the priest's mule in Don Quixote and like Pegasus..."
And the priest would reply:
"C'est la vie: now that I've found a pair of horses worthy of me, I can't ride them as I would like..."
But as before, I would like to compare Brother Francisco to Sancho Panza for you, rather than to the priest in Don Quixote, and thus let me say that, like the squire of Don Quixote of La Mancha, our priest had his donkey as well and, also like him, had his clever witticisms, well stocked and nourished by common proverbs and sayings; but on the other hand, he was more honest and more generous, and he contented himself with what he had, unlike the garden trowel that wishes to be a hoe, and did not dream of his own impossible island; that is to say that he lived more for his parishioners than for himself, in the manner of the good shepherd of the parable. And although given the opportunity, he had quite a sweet tooth and a penchant for gluttony, it was never to the same extent as Quixote's squire. Until that time, our uncle Joanikote had taught us arithmetic, geometry and our first letters, a bit of everything, sometimes like a game, and our grandfather Nikolas also helped and often more seriously. Nevertheless, our grandfather wanted us to study Latin and rhetoric properly as well, and religion too of course and, since grandfather Nikolas, as I said before, held our priest Brother Francisco in particular esteem, he appointed him to be my tutor and Mattin's a short time after I hit my head on the rock, when I had just turned six and Mattin was nine.
"Letters are one world, and numbers another, and the boys should study one world in the morning and the other in the afternoon, just as Martin and Joanikote did in their time, before going to Paris."
But our parents, Lord Martin and Lady Graziana, did not take it well that our grandfather had chosen Brother Francisco. How could they possibly take it well if our father had dreamed of being grander than the grand when he returned from Paris? And his dream led him to speak thus to our grandfather Nikolas: "If you don't mind, Father, I will speak plainly to your Lordship. Brother Francisco being who he is, we cannot ask for the impossible. That is to say that Brother Francisco may be an excellent priest for the townspeople, but not for noblemen, and forgive me for saying so, but a gentleman is worthy of a horse, not a donkey... and we are gentlemen."
"Yes, my son, we are gentlemen, noblemen, and you don't need to remind me of it; nevertheless, on the one hand, we are ones who have failed to hold onto the summit of greatness, since our family and our lineage lost it after that damned war against Castille, and now we can only remember the peak; and on the other hand, I have acted accordingly since childhood... But I don't believe that has anything to do with the decision to bring the village priest here to give our boys a bit of schooling... And with respect to horses and donkeys, my son, on the one hand, although I admit you are right and that a nobleman, to be a noble man, must have a horse, and that it is obvious that the horse is a more beautiful and graceful animal than the donkey, and therefore more appropriate for the nobility, you should know, on the other hand, that the horse neighs and the donkey brays, and there is not much difference between a neigh and a bray. In any case, if this is our biggest worry, we will offer a horse to the priest, and that will be the end of it." Thus did grandfather Nikolas respond, not knowing at the time that Brother Francisco would refuse the offering.
© Irigoien, Joan Mari. Lur bat haratago, Elkar, Donostia, 2000.
© Translation: Kristin Addis